Cate Blanchett is approaching the next phase of her career with her characteristic passion and spontaneity.
Vive Magazine, 2007
Cate Blanchett rests beneath rain-smeared windows. She's stealing quiet time before the photo shoot. A newspaper sits open on her lap, rollers crown her golden-blond head, and cottonwool balls keep each toe from spoiling a fresh coat of polish. Upon introductions, she glances up and extends an arm. “Hi, are we speaking today?” Yes, a bit later. From as yet-unpainted lips, a tired smile surfaces.
In the backdrop, the stylist wheels racks of gowns, while the photographer’s assistant quietly shoots off a round of test shots. Someone fetches Blanchett a coffee – her second or third. Her hair, which she later describes as “too blonde” (so much so she is getting it fixed this afternoon) is blown, combed and sprayed.
Finally primped for the set, the paper is folded away – reluctantly, no doubt – and she shrugs off her lethargy. Blanchett stands and straightens a stark black dress, then walks towards me barefoot. She is tall, but not as tall as I expect, and her waist is somehow slimmer. She reminds me of an origami crane: angular, beautiful, delicate.
“Can I show you something divine?” she asks, holding up a v-neck chocolate-coloured gown dotted with green stones. “But I can’t wear it out to dinner tonight. It’s raining, I’ll look ridiculous.” She makes chicken wing motions with her elbows and pulls a goofy face.
From comic and animated to intense and pensive, the many faces of Cate Blanchett are quite a thing to witness. On the day we meet, she has just attended a dinner with a talk by environmentalist Tim Flannery. Recalling it, and the intellectual debate it stimulated among the audience, her face lights up. “I thought to myself, ‘this is an extraordinary meeting of minds.’ And the dialogue that happened afterwards ... ” she pauses dramatically. “Andrew [Upton, Blanchett’s husband] and I were thrashing things over, in a really athletic way, on the way home. We didn’t go to bed until like three. Which, when your kids are awake at five, is quite late.”
For the moment, it seems nothing excites her more than matters domestic, political and cultural. Asked what she is reading, she scrunches her brow and explains that a friend recently gave her a copy of Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World. But, it’s “too fat”, and her mind is too laden with stories of the non-fiction kind. “I’m reading cultural papers, actually.”
It figures, particularly considering next year she and Upton will themselves assume the wheel at a cultural institution – namely the Sydney Theatre Company (STC). The pair will take over from Robyn Nevin as co-artistic directors. Their three-year contracts include a clause allowing each of them to take three months out each year to pursue other interests. So fear not: she will still grace the screen. Perhaps just not as often.
“I feel the need to move forward,” she told The New Yorker’s John Lahr earlier this year. “Moviemaking becomes a little pointless after a time. You think, ‘Well, yes, that’s an incredible role, and, yes, it would probably stretch me as an actor.’ But performance is not, and never has been, really, all of who I am.”
This decision, along with others she has made in her eleven-year screen career, stems from an urge to push herself, both artistically and intellectually. I suggest her approach is organic. “Look it is, it actually is!” she says. “And you can’t say that too often, because it sounds false. But maybe that’s why each step has been really fulfilling, because it’s been surprising, and not manipulated – and not to get anywhere in particular. Opportunities present themselves and then grow into different opportunities.”
As soon as things look like they’re heading into a ‘plan’, Blanchett becomes uncomfortable, explains her long-time agent Robyn Gardiner. “She has to feel she has something special and interesting to bring to a part, or to an opportunity. Whether it’s to do with the rest of her career, such as her upcoming position at the STC with Andrew, or the way she approaches the environment, nothing she does is cynical. Everything is approached with integrity, truth and intelligence.”
Much has been written of the actress’s remarkable mind, and rightly so. Small talk is not her gig. She speaks in paragraphs rather than sentences – each twisting and turning before trailing to an eloquent end. As Andrew Denton puts it, interviewing Blanchett is like “trying to catch mercury in a sieve”.
The same can be said when making sense of her body language. A chronic fiddler, she picks up a needle in between sips of her coffee and threads its empty eye through her hem. Later, it is her hair, which she ties back, bundles low, then sets loose about her shoulders.
She wants to swap ideas, not be stuck in monologue, and the frustration shows. “I like discussion, particularly with people who think in completely different ways to me. You don’t want to be surrounded by homogenaic thought processes that confirm your own.”
This brand of ‘intellectual perversity’, as she calls it, has guided Blanchett since her teenage years (if not far earlier). Fresh out of Methodist Ladies’ College, the former school drama captain made the interesting choice to marry art history with economics at the University of Melbourne.
“I chose economics for that opposing take: to understand politics from a different perspective. And art history? Well, the art room always involved a lot of creative rambling.” Academia, however, proved too structured and contained. At 18, she pulled out, donned a backpack, and shot overseas, before returning to Australia, finally, to study acting.
Often draped in vintage suits, by age 23 she had graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art and set herself a five-year time limit to make a go of acting. She wanted to learn to deal with the rejection and scrutiny, or else fail happily and try something new. Fortunately, she was cast in Oleanna, starring opposite Geoffrey Rush. The 1993 play came to Australia at ‘just the right time’, and the production was a hit. “I was so lucky. Some people say you make your own luck, but a lot of it is about timing,” she says.
On and off stage, Blanchett boasts an animal power, says Nevin. “She’s quite a ferocious creature in a way. There’s something physical about her that’s very cat-like.” Remembering Hedda Gabler, staged at the STC in 2004, Nevin describes the actress’s presence as like that of a caged eagle: potent and strong with a lust for freedom; yet at the same time, emotionally fragile. “She’s around my office a lot, in and on the sofa. I have images of her at various angles: curled up, lounging. She has a very long, lean body. She has a strong poetic sense and her thoughts are fine and detailed.”
Nevin believes Blanchett has the mindset for directing. “She’s not as subjective as most actors are. She takes such a broad view. She needs to understand the play as a whole.” To positive reviews, Blanchett has so far directed Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska, and later this year will direct Blackbird by David Harrower. She is in the process of auditioning new faces when we speak.
Lining up a second meeting, she whips out her diary (“I won’t succumb to the BlackBerry”) and thumbs through the following week, seemingly crammed with Blackbird engagements. “Hmm, that’s right: next week the designer, the composer and the lighting designer are coming around to talk about the play. I’m really looking forward to that ... it’s not an individual art form. Even when people talk about a director’s vision, or a virtuosic performance, those things still need a framework to exist in, and that framework is part of a collaboration. Part of the reason, part of the joy is that it is collaborative, connected.”
She is not normally this busy, Blanchett explains, but she and Upton are trying to do two jobs at once. With two films due for release later this year – I’m Not There, in which she plays Bob Dylan; and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, the sequel to 1998’s Elizabeth, which nearly earned her an academy award, the silver screen remains a focal point. It seems she is at the peak of her popularity and powers.
“People describe her as a chameleon,” says Gardiner. “That’s one of the major attributes she has as an actor. She can be anything. She’s not a movie star, she’s an actress.” Blanchett’s list of credits outlines the point. She played an Irish national hero in Veronica Guerin (2003), a reformed junkie in Little Fish (2005), and other standout titles include the The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), The Aviator (2004) and Notes on a Scandal (2006).
“I don’t covet roles, really. It’s the juxtaposition of one experience against the other that I’ve found exciting,” she explains. “It’s a bit like skiing in a way. You know what the run is, you’ve done it before, but you set yourself new challenges. The joy is in not knowing where you’re going, except that you’re going down.”
Blanchett says she owes her success to a refusal to self-sabotage. Instead she seeks risk, all the while bringing a lightness, ease and playfulness to performance. “The skill is to be free to invent in the moment – every night, if you’re on stage, or every take.”
Bronzing the elfin ears she wore for The Lord of the Rings led many to tag her sentimental. “To my detriment, I am not,” she says. “I don’t polish memories.” Take with you what’s useful, she believes, “the rest stays in the photo box”. She will not keep a diary. “It’s a bit grand, or sort of self- important, you know. Though I probably should because my memory is so bad.”
When she explains the blur of her last few months (a move back to Sydney from London; settling the children; sinking her teeth into STC plans with her husband), I ask how she digests, and ultimately make sense of, experiences. The question stirs her. She stops, looks confused and sits upright. For once she is without a reply. Not, however, for long.
“Have sex!” she exclaims, then places her head her hands and groans. “No, seriously. Let me think ... ” Blanchett lapses into anecdote.
A few weeks ago she took some time off at Palm Beach in Sydney’s north. There, a tick bit her. At first, when the sickness hit, the doctor deemed it chicken pox. But it was typhus – Queensland tick typhus. “I was hallucinating, I was sweating. It was like a chronic fatigue cycle. I tried to get up and do things, because life is so interesting you don’t want to take time out from it.”
Eventually, though, she was forced to, and upon recovering came the change: she could now approach work in a much calmer way. “I wonder if I have to get sick to process things?” she ponders aloud.
After more thought, a final answer arrives: “I process things through discussion. I think through conversation, things grow ... that’s where Andrew and I balance each other. He’s able to absorb, process and articulate, and I’m able to absorb, process and demonstrate. He’s instinctive, very free, very good at spotting what’s to come; whereas I tend to be very much in the moment, the present.”
Of this relationship Gardiner says, “She and Andrew are the tightest unit I know.” They met on the set of Thank God He Met Lizzie in 1996, and their first kiss occurred while Blanchett was comforting Upton over his break-up with a friend of hers. As he told The New Yorker, “We were both taken by surprise ... I mean, it could have been a one-night stand. We just kept going. Three weeks into our relationship, Cate says she thought, ‘Oh, God, he’s going to ask me to marry him. I’m going to have to say yes.’ I asked her three weeks later.”
“They’ve got a shorthand to communicate. That and just such a firm bond. Andrew’s very wry, and Cate’s just grounded,” observes artist McLean Edwards, who painted the couple with their sons for the 2006 Archibald Prize. “I just asked her for all the Hollywood goss. She has a combination of humour and innate bloody intelligence – which translates into an easy-going, funny disposition that’s particularly Australian. I liked Andrew too, at one point I said, ‘You can go. He can stay’. They laughed and I thought, ‘Phew!’”
If Australia has shaped her personality, it has done the same for her mind. On the day we speak, her head is awash with thoughts on national identity, power, myth and government. Politically, we are lost, she says. “There’s a huge wave of scepticism and about government action, and a short-termism that penetrates everything: ‘this is what I need and if I’m not getting it, I’m leaving’. There’s very little ideology in politics anymore, because ideology takes time.”
On the topic of her sons and motherhood, any vehemence melts. “I guess that’s why people keep having children. It’s the ultimate expression of hope, isn’t it?” Her sons constantly break her heart, she says. “What did TS Elliot say? ‘In my beginning is my end.’ I think that’s why people stare at their babies for so long. You can see it’s a thing, and it’s there, but not there. Like a black hole, but not in a negative way. There’s incredible depth to it. I value my family above all else.” She and Upton don’t wish to be precious parents, she says. For their children they want breathing space and colour.
As Blanchett’s queue of appointments beckons – first, hair re-colouring; second, collecting the boys; third, attending a film industry dinner – she picks at the last of her couscous salad. (Today she’s a climate change-inspired vegetarian, egged on by worries about the energy consumed in feeding grain to livestock. But check to see if she has stuck with it in two weeks’ time, she jokes).
She has one more thing to say: “I want a clearer eye. And that doesn’t mean that strands don’t fall through my fingers or that I don’t have hopeless days, but it’s important to pick yourself up. I don’t want to live a drunken, weeping life.”